The dance studio’s floor, carpeted in an industrial layer of black rubber, flexed and bounced as a dozen sneaker-clad feet stomped out an unsure rhythm.
“You’re going to take your hand and swing around in a circle,” choreographer LeeAnét Noble explains, as her foot — purposeful and grounded — traces an arc on the floor that her body follows.
“Did you make it?” she asks the five recently graduated sorority women. With a few wobbles, most of them had. “Now swing the other way.” The women wobbled in reverse.
So often dance is about lightness, about catching air and gliding along with exquisite grace. But in this studio in the District’s Brookland neighborhood, the floor reverberates with the power of stepping. The women stay low. They clap; swat their legs in crisscrossing gestures. Jump up and land loud. Legs kick forward and back, then again and then again. Bodies spin. Feet stomp the floor. Hands slap the rubber. Stop.
Not quite right. Try again. Make it sharp. With practice, they will.
As they rehearse, Noble encourages the young women to improvise — to riff like musicians, using their bodies as their instruments. Noble — and her mother, Lauretta Noble — grab a couple of rough-hewn drums and beat out a cue. The floor begins to vibrate as Darkesha Molton, a 22-year-old graduate of Penn State Harrisburg, beats out a rhythm of claps and back kicks that would be familiar to her Zeta Phi Beta sorors. Adrianna Cornish, 22, a member of Delta Sigma Theta headed to nursing school in the fall, turns her chest into a drum — boom, boom, boom — but loses her rhythm as her pace quickens. Salem Daniel, 22, flips her head forward on her down beats — long, black hair flying.
Stepping is an African American tradition rooted within the culture of black fraternities and sororities, but it reaches across continents and oceans — bearing powerful remnants of the African diaspora. It has been part of college Greek life since at least the 1940s and it has been showcased in cinema and live theater. But it only recently entered the consciousness of the fashion industry, and it did so with startling force.
In Paris, almost one year ago, a group of 40 young women — dubbed Team Vicious — performed in a runway show. They blazed across the stage like a comet, and their impact continues.
Fashion folks were mesmerized that afternoon and immediately sought out Noble, as well as members of the team, for photo sessions. They shot Noble dressed in Alexander Wang and Etro. The performance sparked discussions about diversity and prejudices and the meaning behind the women’s fierce expressions — their “grit” faces. The interest has not waned and the conversation continues into the current fashion season.
That is why a small contingent from mighty Team Vicious — Cornish, Molton, Daniel, along with Leya Abebe and Brittany Brown, both 22 — gathered one summer weekend afternoon in Washington to rehearse for a string of events that command their attention.
Last week, they performed at a celebration of diversity at the College of Coastal Georgia. They stepped to “J’ai Deux Amours,” made famous by Josephine Baker, as a way of commemorating their star turn across the Atlantic.
A few days later, in New York, they participated in a program honoring cultural lionesses Maya Angelou and Ruby Dee. And on Sept. 12, on Seventh Avenue — in the heart of America’s fashion industry — they will stomp the floor at the opening of “Dance & Fashion,” an exhibition organized by the Museum at FIT (the Fashion Institute of Technology).
Museum director Valerie Steele hopes the steppers will force people to reconsider their assumptions about “the preciousness of dance.”
“There’s this image of ballerinas as precious and wimpy,” she says, “but you have to be strong and athletic.
“And our vision of the athletic physique is always mediated through a fashion shoot where someone is pretending to be an athlete.”
The steppers, who come in a multitude of sizes — none of them sample — bring athleticism, the virtuosity of movement and the earnestness of non-professional models. They bring honesty.
“Step, as a body of expression, it has a lot of power to it,” Brown says.
It’s rare that fashion embraces any truth but the one that it painstakingly crafts and controls. The steppers tell their own story in gestures and expressions. And it is fashion’s very lack of controlling authority that has left the industry enthralled.
The most creative fashion designers are forever in search of new ways to express their vision in a manner that is both provocative and pragmatic. They have worked with modern dancers, Olympic athletes, musicians, actresses, folks plucked off the street.
Paris-based designer Rick Owens has always been willing to push against boundaries. After seeing YouTube videos of step team competitions, he was besotted with the synchronized movement and gutsy attitude. He wanted a group of steppers to perform at his runway show, which he typically mounts in an industrial space the size of an airplane hangar.
About a year or so earlier, he had made cold calls to step teams in North Carolina, but they dismissed him as a crank. Rick who? Owens, who was born in California, refused to give up, and in the spring of 2013 an assistant, Asha Mines, introduced him to Noble, her longtime friend.
Noble, who commutes between Washington and New York, is a choreographer, drummer and tap dancer, and a former performer in “Stomp!” — that off-
Broadway maelstrom of rhythm and sound — as well as “Step Afrika!” She is a movement aficionado who knows a lot about stepping, as well as something about South African gumboot dancing, Zulu kicks and Martha Graham.
In April 2013, Noble received her first instructions from Paris: They “were very detailed, but vague at the same time,” she says. Noble was told to assemble 40 girls and to choreograph a piece that would initially have them performing in groups of 10 — and then as a full ensemble. “It was about people being separate but one,” Noble says. “It was about unity.” And she was to do so as quickly as possible. So she turned to professional contacts, Howard University (her alma mater) and the step grapevine. Rush, rush, rush!
During the months leading up to the event, many of the women, most still in college, didn’t believe the performance would happen: a fully paid trip to Paris, fittings for a designer’s spring 2014 collection, all very hush-hush. Seriously? Some of the performers hadn’t bothered to get passports. (Owens paid to have them expedited.) For Noble, steeped in the controlled chaos of the entertainment world, there was never any doubt.
For the steppers, becoming models was something else entirely. “I thought we’d be stepping and performing and the models would be around us,” Noble says. “I was describing my vision to Asha. . . . How will we enter and not bump into each other? . . . And she said, ‘Wait, you are the models!’ ”
The performers represented a variety of body types — none falling within the narrow parameters typical of the fashion industry. Noble is tall but round. She has neither the lean muscularity of a dancer, nor the angles of a model. And her team included women who fell into the plus-size range — at least as the fashion industry defines it. So each ensemble was custom-made for the woman who would wear it. The diversity was not just in body type but in skin color, too. The majority of the women are black — a rarity on any runway.
“I think we opened minds to new fashion and that fashion is not just a size zero, but can be a size 10 or 12,” Cornish says.
At the Owens show, Team Vicious marched in tight synchronization down the steps of a two-story scaffolding and onto a wide bare stage surrounded by rows of editors and retailers, and a thick flock of photographers.
Traditionally, stepping is performed only to the sounds created by the performers themselves. But stepping evolves and shifts. So the women walked out into darkness to the thumping sound of music that had been created by Owens. They put on their “grit” face — an expression of fierce stoicism. It’s what one scholar refers to as “the mask of the cool,” a face that suggests that one rose above strife, connected to oneself, found a purpose and persevered.
“Some exaggerated the ‘grit’ and turned it into a roar,” notes Elizabeth Fine, author of “Soulstepping: African American Step Shows.” Team Vicious “had such pride and power. It wasn’t, to me, quite anger [in their expressions] but ‘I’m totally in control.’
“It was so counter to woman as clotheshorse or object.”
Noble had been warned about fashion audiences. “They don’t clap. They don’t scream.”
But the audience did both. Noble said she thought, “I hope they get this. They’re getting it. They got it. . . . I felt like we had superpowers. I felt like I could fly.”
Team Vicious didn’t expect to change fashion. They had only hoped to do right by a tradition and have a good time. They did. And that evening after their performance, they dolled themselves up, climbed aboard a boat and floated down the Seine in a celebration orchestrated by Owens and his staff.
Stepping is not new to the spotlight. Popular culture has embraced the form in film, most notably in “Stomp the Yard” and “School Daze.” “Step Afrika!” turned it into live theater. There have been DVDs devoted to the form, transforming it into a kind of cardio regimen.
But the heart of stepping remains on college campuses, particularly historically black ones, where sorors and brothers stomp, clap and chant a rhythm of their own devising with bits of breakdancing, hip-hop strutting, as well as echoes of sounds that go back generations. Stepping encompasses both past and present. It is gleeful yet full of clear-headed swagger. “We party hard; we party late; but most of all, we graduate,” intoned the men of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity at Clark Atlanta University in an impromptu campus performance posted on YouTube in 2012.
Stepping did not originate as entertainment, says Fine, who is a professor of religion and culture at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. It was a way to “express unity with brothers and sisters, to show that they could move as one.” It remains the signature manner of showing, Fine says, “I am a member of this group and we’re bonded in a very powerful way.”
It is rare to see such a humane expression of vital solidarity on a fashion runway. The catwalk is more often a stage for a singular star model or a troupe of models denuded of personality.
Team Vicious jolted the industry with its ethnicity, voluptuous figures and personality. The performers rose up against everything that so often makes the fashion world feel like an inhospitable place to so many women.
The next season, Owens used non-
professional models in his runway show. There was no grand performance, but some of the same vibrant spirit was there. Months later, the look of some of the most high profile women’s ready-to-wear shows — from Paris to New York — was more diverse. Just a little.